Asbestos has been widely used in commercial and industrial products throughout the United States since the late 1800s. Its popularity increased between the 1930s and 1970s, when it was incorporated into thousands of products including building materials, automotive parts, and even some household and consumer products.
It’s now well known that asbestos is a highly toxic mineral that, when inhaled or ingested, can cause serious health issues – including inflammation, genetic damage, and a rare cancer known as mesothelioma.
Today, asbestos is regulated – but not banned – in the United States. It can still be found in many products – new and old. Asbestos is still imported today, at alarming rates, with over 600,000 pounds imported to the United States in 2020.
What Is Asbestos And Why Was It Used In Products?
Asbestos is a naturally-occurring mineral, deposits of which are traditionally found in serpentinite rock. After the mineral is mined, it is pulverized into dust that contains long, flexible hair-like fibers.
It’s a well-known fire retardant and insulator and is revered for its ability to add support, strength, and flexibility to many products. As a result, asbestos has commonly been used in products that are exposed to high levels of heat, subject to a lot of friction, or need added durability and stability.
Asbestos has been used around the globe for centuries, dating back to as early as 4500 BC because of its versatility. Given its popularity, products containing asbestos can be found almost everywhere – in schools, on ships, integrated into the structures of old homes and buildings, and even in everyday personal care products.
It’s important to note that asbestos isn’t always incorporated into products intentionally. Since it is a naturally-occurring mineral, there have been instances when it has been mined alongside other minerals – including talc and vermiculite.
Products and materials that have historically utilized asbestos include:
Building Products And Construction Materials
Asbestos can commonly be found in buildings constructed before 1980. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) estimates that the construction industry was responsible for between 70 and 80 percent of all asbestos used in the United States prior to 2000.
Given the mineral’s properties, it was a popular additive to many construction and building products, including:
- Adhesives, including putties, glues, and caulks
- Spackling compounds
- Poured cement
- Cement sheets
- Transite products, including ducts, pipes, siding, and wall panels
- Joint compound
- Vinyl flooring tiles
- Ceiling tiles
- Ceiling texture (popcorn ceiling material)
- Roofing shingles
- HVAC ductwork connectors
- HVAC vibration dampeners
- Roofing tar
- Roofing and flooring felt
- Thermal taping compounds
- Vermiculite insultation
- Spray on insulation
- Insulting cloth
- Cloth wire insulation
- Electrical panels
- Heat shields
- Vapor barriers
- Construction-grade mastic
- Base flashing
- Window glazing
Adding asbestos to these products could extend their lifespans, protect against fire damage, and provide a sturdier end-product. However, the decision to use it put everyone who came into contact with these products – from builders to construction workers to homeowners – at risk of asbestos exposure and inhalation.
Asbestos can become problematic if it is contained in friable building materials – or those that can be easily crumbled or destroyed. Anytime an asbestos-containing product is disturbed – during demolition, renovations, or through a manmade or natural disaster – there’s a risk of asbestos fibers being released into the air.
Federal law does not currently require asbestos disclosure during real estate transactions. So, if you are purchasing a home or investing in property, it is important to check your local laws to determine if the seller is required to disclose whether or not there is asbestos on the property.
Asbestos isn’t just limited to building and construction products – it’s also been widely used in consumer products for decades. From cigarettes to clothing to appliances, asbestos made its way into household and consumer products that are used by people across the world every day.
Today, most consumer products contain little-to-no asbestos, thanks to growing awareness about the dangers of the mineral and increasingly tight federal asbestos regulations.
However, asbestos can still be found in goods that were produced before regulations were rolled out.
Consumer products that might contain asbestos include:
- Textiles and clothing (e.g., blankets, gloves, yarn)
- Personal care products, including talcum powder and baby powder
- Heat-retardant fabrics
- Household appliances (e.g., coffee pots, heaters, wood-burning stoves, crockpots)
- Hair dryers
- Potting soil
- Oven mitts
- Household fire blankets
The risk is highest for consumer goods produced prior to 1980 before the hazards associated with the use of asbestos were less well-known.
Fireproofing and Fire-Resistant Materials
Asbestos fibers are extremely resistant to high levels of heat and exposure to chemicals, which makes it a great insulator and fireproofing material. In fact, its ability to withstand fire and heat is so impressive that some fireproofing materials have been made entirely out of asbestos.
Fireproofing and fire-resistant materials that contain or may contain asbestos include:
- Firefighter protective gear
- Fire blankets
- Fire boards
- Fire curtains
- Fire doors
Firefighters are at a particularly high risk of developing mesothelioma and other asbestos-related injuries. In fact, the International Agency for Research on Cancer, part of the World Health Organization, has formally designed the occupation as a cancer risk. Firefighters are at a 58 percent higher risk of developing mesothelioma than the general population.
Wearing a self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA) can help to ensure that dangerous mineral fibers don’t make their way into a firefighter’s lungs.
Many automotive parts in cars, trucks, ATVs, and boats are subjected to high levels of heat, chemicals, and friction. The addition of asbestos to these products has proven beneficial in extending their use and utility.
Historically, asbestos has been used in:
- Brakes (including disc brakes and drum brakes)
- Brake linings
- Brake pads
- Brake shoes
- Clutches (including facings and linings)
Today, many automotive parts still contain low levels of asbestos, which can be problematic for individuals who are regularly exposed to these parts of the vehicle during manufacturing and repair.
Asbestos is naturally resistant to saltwater and a great fire retardant, making it a popular choice for manufacturers in the shipbuilding industry.
Shipbuilding materials that can contain asbestos include:
- Block insulation
- Cables and wires
- Deck coatings
- Heat paneling
- Hydraulic assemblies
- Hydraulic pumps
- Spray-on asbestos insulation
- Packing materials
- Pipe wrap covering insulation
Shipbuilders, shipyard workers, and Navy servicemembers have historically been at an increased risk of asbestos exposure and, in turn, health issues like mesothelioma.
Why Was Asbestos Partially Banned?
In 1989, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) issued the Asbestos Ban and Phase-Out Rule (ABPR), which was an attempt to get asbestos-containing products out of the marketplace.
The ABPR had two primary functions:
- A full ban on manufacturing, importing, processing, and selling asbestos-containing products in the United States
- Prohibit new asbestos products from being sold in the United States after August 25, 1989.
However, the U.S. Court for the Fifth Circuit of Appeals overturned part of the ban in 1991, likely in response to pressure from asbestos-industry lobbyists. As a result, the APRB ban would apply to products that would be “initiated for the first time after 1989.”
The Court also clarified that the ban could apply to certain asbestos-containing products that weren’t being manufactured on July 12, 1989 – the day the EPA rolled out the ABPR.
So, in addition to new products introduced into the market, the EPA’s partial ban on asbestos products applies to:
- Flooring felt
- Commercial paper
- Corrugated paper
- Commercial paper
It’s important to know and understand which products have historically contained asbestos. Under current federal law, products that contained asbestos prior to the ABPR’s rollout can continue to include the toxic mineral. This means that even though the quantity and source of the asbestos may be regulated, products that are still being manufactured today can still contain hazardous levels of the mineral. Over time, even minimal asbestos exposure can cause severe health issues.
Is Asbestos Still Used In Products?
Despite the fact that asbestos is banned in many countries around the globe and is no longer mined in the United States, it can still be found in many products here. However, the uses are more limited and subject to federal regulations.
However, asbestos generally does not have to be disclosed if it accounts for less than 1 percent of the product’s materials.
Most of the asbestos imported into the United States is used in the Chlor-alkali industry, which uses asbestos diaphragms to make chlorine.
Data from the U.S. International Trade Commission reveals that 100 metric tons of raw chrysotile asbestos were imported in all of 2021. In the first three months of 2022, alone, 114 metric tons of the mineral variant were imported. Most of this asbestos was used exclusively by manufacturing and processing plants in the Chlor-alkali industry.
The EPA is already considering a ban on the use of chrysotile, or white, asbestos in the Chlor-alkali industry. The increased importation of the mineral and the ever-present threat of asbestos-related injuries and illnesses may prompt the EPA to move forward with the total ban.
Asbestos Products Currently Banned in the US
In 2019, the EPA introduced a Proposed Ban of Ongoing Uses of Asbestos which, as the name suggests, would more tightly regulate the manufacture, processing, distribution, and use of asbestos in some products.
Under the ban, many products would have to be subject to an EPA review before they would be approved to enter the marketplace.
Product categories affected by the 2019 EPA ban include:
- Adhesives, sealants, and roof and non-roof sealants
- Ceramic arc chutes
- Beater-add gaskets
- Cement products, including cement pipe and fittings, cement flat sheets, corrugated cement sheets, and cement shingles
- Extruded sealant tape and other tapes
- Filler for acetylene cylinders
- Friction materials (excluding vehicle friction products)
- High-grade electrical paper
- Missile liner
- Pipeline wrap
- Reinforced plastics
- Fuel cell and battery separators
- Vinyl-asbestos floor tile
- Woven products
The ban also applies to “any other building material,” such as insulation, mastics, and textured paints, as well as “any use of asbestos not otherwise identified.”
How Do I know if A Product Contains Asbestos?
Asbestos was used in over 3,000 products before health concerns led to dramatic rollbacks in the use of the mineral in the 1980s. Unfortunately, the mineral is odorless, tasteless, and can be blue, green, white, or brown. Asbestos fibers can’t be seen by the naked eye, and the mineral’s appearance can change depending on the product into which it’s incorporated.
So how can you know if an older product or building contains asbestos?
Some tips for determining if a product contains asbestos:
- Check the label on the building material to identify the manufacturer and date of manufacture. Determine when the home, building, vehicle, or vessel was built. You can generally expect older products, homes, ships, or buildings – constructed before 1980 – to contain asbestos.
- Assess the joints and design structure. Buildings with asbestos sheeting often used aluminum runners on the outside and plastic or wood runners on the inside. Runners will be attached using small nails with no point on the ends.
- Asbestos-containing materials often have a dimpled surface, while non-asbestos containing-products tend to have a smooth finish.
To know for sure, you’ll have to have a sample of the material analyzed by an EPA-approved laboratory.
For newer products – particularly those manufactured after 1990 – you can check product labels and contact the manufacturer to get specific details on the use or incorporation of asbestos in the materials.
What Can I Do if I’ve Been Exposed To An Asbestos-Containing Product?
If you have been exposed to asbestos-containing products and have begun to develop respiratory issues or other adverse health events, it is important to seek medical attention.
Asbestos, when inhaled, can become trapped in the body and lodged in the lungs. Over time, this can cause inflammation, lead to genetic damage, and cause a rare type of cancer known as mesothelioma. It can take decades for mesothelioma to present, so it is important to limit exposure to asbestos and see a physician as soon as you begin to experience any unusual health issues.
Once you’ve sought care, contact Bailey & Glasser, LLP to discuss your legal rights and options. You may be able to file a claim and recover compensation for your injuries. Our team can connect you with critical resources and help you pursue the best possible outcome in your mesothelioma injury case.
We offer a free initial consultation, so please don’t hesitate to contact us for assistance today.